Devotion for the Week of July 23, 2017 - The Story Behind the Hymn – “HOLD THE FORT”

The Story Behind the Hymn – “HOLD THE FORT”

John 14:3 (KJV), “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.”

Just before [Will­iam Te­cum­seh] Sher­man be­gan his infa­mous march to the sea in 1864, and while his ar­my lay camped in the neigh­bor­hood of Atlanta [Georgia] on the 5th of Oc­to­ber, the ar­my of Gen. John Bell Hood, in a care­ful­ly pre­pared move­ment, passed the right flank of Sher­man’s ar­my, gained his rear, and com­menced the de­struction of the rail­road lead­ing north, burn­ing block­houses and cap­tur­ing the small gar­ri­sons along the line.

Sher­man’s ar­my was put in ra­pid mo­tion pur­su­ing Hood, to save the sup­plies and larg­er posts, the prin­ci­pal one of which was lo­cat­ed at Al­too­na Pass. Gen­er­al Corse, of Il­li­nois, was sta­tioned there with about fif­teen hun­dred men, Col­o­nel Tour­te­lotte be­ing se­cond in com­mand. A mil­lion and a half ra­tions were stored here and it was high­ly im­port­ant that the earth­works com­mand­ing the pass and pro­tect­ing the sup­plies be held.

Six thou­sand men un­der com­mand of Gen­e­ral French were de­tailed by Hood to take the po­si­tion. The works were com­plete­ly sur­round­ed and sum­moned to sur­rend­er. Corse re­fused and a sharp fight com­menced. The de­fend­ers were slow­ly driv­en in­to a small fort on the crest of the hill. Ma­ny had fall­en, and the re­sult seemed to ren­der a pro­long­a­tion of the fight hop­eless. At this mo­ment an of­fi­cer caught sight of a white sig­nal flag far away across the val­ley, twen­ty miles dis­tant, up­on the top of Kennesaw Mount­ain. The sig­nal was an­swered, and soon the mes­sage was waved across from moun­tain to moun­tain:

“Hold the fort; I am coming. W. T. Sher­man.”

Cheers went up; every man was nerved to a full ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the po­si­tion; and un­der a mur­der­ous fire, which killed or wound­ed more than half the men in the fort—Corse him­self bei­ng shot three times through the head, and Tour­te­lotte tak­ing com­mand, though himself bad­ly wound­ed—they held the fort for three hours un­til the ad­vance guard of Sherman’s ar­my came up. French was obliged to re­treat.

"Hold the Fort!" was written in 1870 by Philip Paul Bliss, an evangelist and composer, after he heard the story of the Union defense of Allatoona Pass told in a Sunday School class. The use of signal flags to send messages from Kennesaw Mountain near Atlanta to the threatened garrison holding Allatoona Pass was held forth as an example of how Jesus Christ signals Christians to hold strong to their beliefs, for "He is coming."

The meeting attended by Bliss took place in Rockford, Illinois, on a Thursday and Friday, April 28-29, 1870. Among the speakers was Major Daniel Webster Whittle, who told how on the day before the battle, General William Tecumseh Sherman had sent messages by signal flag to urge the garrison at Allatoona to hold out.

Whittle remembered the message as saying,
"Hold the Fort; I am coming!"

His telling of the story so inspired Bliss that he based a hymn on the story of Allatoona Pass.

After this Bliss and Whittle served as traveling evangelists, speaking to crowds large and small and carrying the story of the signals to Allatoona Pass and the song with them.

In 1876, they actually visited Georgia and climbed to the top of Kennesaw Mountain.  There they saw the ruins of the Civil War signal tower and in the distance could see the Allatoona Mountains.

It was a moving moment for both men and after kneeling in prayer, they sang "Hold the Fort" together. Bliss told a friend that he almost expected to see Jesus returning in the sky at that moment.

Philip Paul Bliss went on to his Heavenly reward before that year was out. A railroad bridge collapsed in Ashtabula, Ohio, on December 29, 1876, sending a train crashing into Ashtabula Creek. Kerosene lamps in the cars shattered, igniting a fire that burned many passengers alive. Among them were Philip Paul Bliss and his wife.

As is often the case, the story of the signals sent to Allatoona as told by Whittle differed somewhat from reality. General Sherman himself wrote of the incident in a letter dated June 22, 1875. While he remembered some of the details used by Whittle at the Sunday School Convention, he also noted, "I do not think I used the words 'Hold the Fort'."

Sherman's memory was correct. The two messages sent by flag to Allatoona from Kennesaw Mountain on October 4, 1864, read as follows:

"Sherman is moving in force; Hold Out!  General Sherman says Hold Fast. We are coming"

As Sherman himself later noted, however, while he didn't say "Hold the Fort," that was undoubtedly his intent. And in doing so, one of the Civil War's toughest general inspired one of Christianity's most beloved hymns.

Ho, my comrades! see the signal waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.


“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”

See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;
Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone!


See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over ev’ry foe.


Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!


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